Perhaps the most significant announcement Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman will ever make was expected this weekend as she rolls out guidelines for reopening schools this August.
But those guidelines, which Hoffman promised by May 30, are only the beginning for Mesa Public Schools and the rest of Arizona districts as they peer into a murky future that’s only about eight weeks away.
Reopening is not something that Mesa Public Schools and other districts are just starting to think about now that report cards have been completed and virtual graduations concluded.
MPS Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis told the Governing Board last week that Mesa has been well-represented in a group of 89 school representatives who have been weighing in on Hoffman during her planning for weeks. Three teachers, a principal, a nurse and six administrators have been “sharing the voice of Mesa Public Schools” with Hoffman, she said.
The issues are staggering in their complexity and breadth.
They affect how students will get to and from school, how they will sit and move around inside them, how they will eat and play. Field trips and extracurriculars activities – from sports to choral to band – also await scrutiny.
Officials also must assess what Fourlis called in a recent public discussion “learning loss” among students over the last three months of distance learning as well as the continuing “digital divide” between students with internet access and those without.
Even the impact of closures on students’ mental health is an issue, given the prolonged alarm over the virus and their long separation from classmates and campus life.
“I take deep cleansing breaths when I think that we only have 70 days to get ready for what’s coming in the fall and to be at to make sure that we have the flexibility and the opportunities for our families and teachers and our students,” Fourlis told the board.
Chandler Unified Superintendent Camille Casteel was even more blunt, telling her board, “We’re like flying the plane and building it at the same time.”
The issues are so vast and complex that Fourlis has 11 different subcommittees on the Mesa task force addressing various aspects of reopening.
They cover everything from technology and health to sports and instructional logistics.
And they address – like all other East Valley districts have been doing – three basic scenarios for the 2020-21 school year: fully open campuses, a hybrid of on-site and at-home learning and full-on distant learning as students had the last three months of the school year that just ended.
“We’re asking ourselves what does face-to-face look like?” Fourlis said. “Is it what we’ve always had face-to-face or is face-to-face with perhaps an alternative schedule where students attend sometimes and rotate days or half days.”
President Trump has said schools should reopen and Gov. Doug Ducey last week said schools will reopen.
But that's easier said than done, given the myriad of complex – and expensive – issues that will impact students, parents, teachers and other staff.
The guidelines Hoffman was supposed to release May 30 – after the Tribune’s deadline – will be just that: guidelines.
During a meeting last Tuesday between some superintendents and Ducey and Hoffman, the governor “was very, very clear to say that Arizona has guidelines .... Those are not mandates,” Fourlis saidoard.
“I was sitting next to the superintendent of the Navajo Nation. He has a very different problem to solve than we do, so the statewide plan has to be nimble,” she said.
Although the Trump Administration had shelved a 62-page set of guidelines created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening the country, the voluminous document was leaked.
It contained 19 specific recommendations – not rules - for reopening schools that AASA, The Superintendents Association, urged school districts should follow.
Those recommendations include spacing desk 6 feet apart, canceling field trips and limited extracurricular activities, repeated emphasis on washing hands and related hygiene practices, canceling most work gatherings, staggering the use of cafeterias and other gathering places like playgrounds so they can be disinfected after every use, staggering arrival and drop-off times and even locations, assigning supplies like crayons and pens to individual students and restricting visits from parents or other nonessential people.
Districts are examining space, trying to determine if libraries and multipurpose rooms will have to give way to additional classrooms necessary to keep desks at an acceptable social distance.
But even as that all goes on, MPS and other school officials have an even bigger worry: who will even come to school if campuses reopen?
The question involves both teachers and students.
MPS and most districts are surveying teaching staff to see who plans to return to the classroom when school begins.
While available data suggests the spread of the virus among children may be low, the data is mixed on the frequency of child-to-adult transfers.
Even without children, however, interactions among school staff could pose a concern for at least some school employees, particularly those who are older.
Then there are worries about how many parents might not want to send their children to school – a prospect with major financial implications because the bulk of school districts’ state funding is based on enrollment.
Those concerns run the gamut: Some may have elderly family members in the household and might fear their child will inadvertently infect them. Some parents of special-needs children might fear for their kids’ safety.
So, Mesa is also surveying parents – and eventually students – as part of Fourlis’ four-stage plan for developing and rolling out the MPS reopening strategy.
“The big problem for us to solve that I keep thinking about is what happens if 50 percent of our families might want face-to-face and only 30 percent of our teachers want to teach in face-to-face,” she told the board.
“How do we put that puzzle together? So, it will be really important that not only do we collect survey data, but we’re having these focus groups for real conversations.”
Fourlis said the need to have a hybrid approach involves the possibility of an outbreak at a school or a school showing state-set percentage of faculty or students who have been exposed to the virus that would put it in line for closure.
“This would also be a place where we may be helping those families have a choice if they have students who have immune challenges or they just don’t feel safe yet coming back,” she said.
The Arizona Board of Education acknowledge those concerns by establishing a new way for districts to expand their online learning programs to all grades so that students whose parents opt for distance learning will count in the state’s reimbursement formula.
The state board contracted with Rio Salado Community College to evaluate written descriptions of online educational programs.
Districts that have certified online instruction for some grades must secure certification for its expansion to other grades, said Arizona Board of Education Executive Director Alicia Williams.
Districts also are assessing how they will handle transportation. While some states have talked about staggering start times so fewer children are on a bus, there is no agreement nationally on whether this will be necessary.
However, there is agreement among bus transportation professionals that additional sanitizing measures will be needed.
During a webinar last month on the subject, Mike Martin, executive director/CEO of the National Association of Pupil Transportation said that because the COVID-19 situation is constantly evolving, there is no set best practice available.
His organization also asked its members to “work with their school leadership to issue a statement to parents about cleanliness on their school buses.”
In that same webinar, Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and Services, said that because buses are not designed for social distancing, school districts will have to determine how to protect both students and drivers and that in the short-run, drivers may have to be equipped with protective clothing to enhance their safety.
The MPS Governing Board and its peers throughout Arizona are now in the process of finalizing budgets for the next school year.
To help districts meet some of the new costs and revenue losses associated with the pandemic, Congress allotted $30.6 billion of its $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for school districts.
Arizona’s share is $275 million and most districts have already been advised as to what they can expect. The issue has not been discussed at any recent MPS board meetings.
It likely will be millions, given that the somewhat smaller Chandler Unified School District expects around $3.3 million.
But there’s a national controversy over that money after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos advised that private schools – those that charge tuition – share in that money.
Moreover, her department advised, private schools’ share should be based on the total number of all its students while public schools’ share must be based on the number of students who come from families at or below the poverty line.
Private schools within each district must request that money from the district.
Moreover, “schools must notify the private schools, but many privates have already reached out because it’s a much larger sum than in the past,” said Dr. Mark Joraanstad, executive director of the Arizona School Administrators.
Joraanstad has urged all Arizona superintendents to write to their congressional representatives and ask that Congress step in to blunt Devos’ advisory.
“It appears the House is considering putting further guidance language on their intent,” he told the Tribune. “Whether the Senate would do so is more questionable. However, some senators have expressed concern over abandoning the poverty standard that has a history going back to the mid 1960’s.”
The backlash against Devos’ plan, however, is growing among both Democrats and Republicans.
Indiana’s Republican state superintendent of education already has declared she state will ignore Devos’ directive.
Republican Sen. Alexander Lamar, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, has publicly expressed concern about her interpretation of the CARES Act.
“My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money,” Alexander told reporters last week. “I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”
According to the website politico.com, “DeVos defended her interpretation of the law” and that she said, “it’s our interpretation that it is meant literally for all students and that includes students, no matter where they’re learning.”
Last week, The Hill reported that despite opposition from congressmen on both sides of the aisle DeVos accused state education leaders of having a “reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control.”
On Friday, she put her foot down and said she issue a rule making her guidance mandatory and “resolve any issues in plenty of time for the next school year.” ′